On Palm Sunday 2021, the members of Ragan Chapel UMC gathered for Sunday morning worship. They could not gather in their beloved church building because just a few days earlier it had been destroyed by an EF-2 tornado that also killed five people in the Ohatchee community. Instead, the Ragan Chapel congregation joined their neighbors at Ohatchee UMC and lifted prayers, shared holy communion and sang praises to God.
During the service, Danny Poss, the pastor of Ragan Chapel UMC, shared that on Thursday when he learned the church building had been destroyed and was able to travel to the site, it was too overwhelming. So he returned the next day determined to uncover the church’s communion set and important papers safe. When he arrived that Friday morning, he noted the exterior walls of the sanctuary had been knocked down. However, an interior wall that once held artwork and bulletin boards full of congregational information was still standing. The storm’s winds had ripped most everything off the wall – including the thumbtacks. However, artwork depicting Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Last Supper was left hanging undisturbed. Poss brought that picture to Ohatchee UMC and displayed it in front of the altar during morning worship. He said he wanted to make sure the picture was hung in a place of honor when the Ragan Chapel congregation builds a new church building.
Poss also reflected on the massive outpouring of love and support the congregation and community had received since Thursday’s storm. He shared a takeaway that he says will always stay with him, “If you’re out there working and it's hot and the sun is beating down on you and you're thirsty and a person comes and offers you a cold bottle of water, you don’t care what color the skin is on the arm of that man who has offered you that water. You don’t care if they speak English or not. You don’t care if it’s a man or a woman. The sharing of water has somehow come to be for me a universal sign of respect and peace and honor and love. I say that because we had two young men yesterday on-site. They couldn’t speak English but they were going around with cold water and handing it out. And I think that should become the universal gesture of peace for all humanity. A hand extended with cold water because if you're thirsty you don’t care who it is.”
Cheaha District Lay Leader Hal Riddle attended the joint service and read scripture. He assured members of both congregations that the Cheaha District and the entire North Alabama Conference cares about them. He noted that people all over the Conference are praying for them and the community of Ohatchee. He explained that he had spent 40 years as a school teacher and coach and understands the importance of having teammates. He wanted them to know United Methodists across North Alabama are on their team.
Ohatchee UMC Pastor Rev. Jenny You led the congregational prayer, lifting up all those in the community who lost loved ones and are grieving.
After sharing a letter of greetings from Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, Cheaha District Superintendent Rev. Sherill Clontz preached a sermon based on Romans 8 asking “What do you say after the storm?” She reminded those gathered that in the midst of suffering God is present and that God can bring good out of a tragedy.
She also reminded the congregations that the church is not a building but a people. She noted that Ragan Chapel UMC was a holy place, not because a building once stood, but it was and still is a holy place because of faithful people who have worshipped and prayed together for generations.
The Ragan Chapel congregation is determined to continue worshipping together and to rebuild its building. The congregation knows this will be challenging. Due to the age of the structure, they recently had not been able to acquire insurance beyond liability insurance. However, a church member reminded others this was not the first time the historic congregation faced such a challenge. The original Ragan Chapel building was destroyed by fire. At that time, congregation members thought they would not be able to rebuild, but they did. Current members are determined to repeat that faithful effort.
The Cheaha District has set up a fund with the North Alabama United Methodist Foundation to help the congregation in its rebuilding efforts. If you or your congregation wish to support the cleanup and rebuilding of Ragan Chapel, you may send donations to the Cheaha District (898 Arkadelphia Rd., Birmingham, AL 35204) marked for Ragan Chapel. If you wish to donate time and materials for the cleanup and recovery of Ragan Chapel UMC, contact the Cheaha Disaster Recovery Coordinator Michael Dunbar at email@example.com.
If you wish to support the storm recovery throughout Alabama and you can donate through UMCOR for US Disaster Response and Recovery Advance #901670. You may also contact Conference Disaster Response Coordinator Rev. Randy Burbank at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.
The Palm Sunday service in Ohatchee ended with Holy Communion and the two congregations singing the hymns, “We are Standing on Holy Ground” and “It Is Well with My Soul.” As they prepare to celebrate the events of Holy Week in a community affected by tragedy, they know that resurrection is the heart of the Christian story.